No Longer At Ease
by Chinua Achebe
Tools of Characterization
Obi's nickname during school was "Dictionary" because of his school smarts. This is an early indication of the way Obi relies and falls back on the written word, something that is reflected later when he becomes known as a member of the community who has learned "book." Isolated from his cultural heritage due to his father's Christianity, Obi embraces Western education and becomes even further alienated from his kinsmen.
Obi's full name is Obiajuli, which means "the mind at last is at rest." When translated, this is actually a characterization of Obi's father, Isaac, who had been anxious because his wife gave birth to four daughters before she finally gave birth to one son. This given name reveals the importance of having a son, and how men in Igbo culture are emasculated if they have nothing but daughters. His name is also ironic, since Obi's mind is never at rest; he is ceaselessly thinking about the problems of Nigeria, the problems of independence, the problems involved in getting his parents to agree to his marriage to Clara. As the title of the book clearly indicates, he is "no longer at ease."
Other names in the book indicate the influence of Western values and culture. Clara's name is an English name, indicating her family's support for the ways of the West. We also are made aware of her family's westernization because they must have supported her to study medicine in England. Both the fact that she studied Western medicine (rather than traditional healing), and the fact that she studied it in a western country, is further evidence of the westernization of her family's values.
We know that Isaac Okonkwo took a new name when he became a Christian. His original name, which we know from Things Fall Apart, was called Nwoye. His new name suggests that Isaac cast off his past identity and assumed a new identity, one affiliated with a Western religion and Western ideals.
Obi's education in a Western system alienates him from the customs of his family and his kinsmen. He fails to understand how deeply certain cultural values are held, even by his Christian family members, and violates taboos by becoming involved with Clara. But his pride – helped by the fact that his education and income level is superior to everyone he knows –prevents him from seeing how destructive his stubbornness will prove to be.
Obi's western education, like Clara's education, sets him apart from his friends and family. He has different values and different ideas about how life should be lived and the government should be run. But there are also other kinds of education. We see that Joseph, who only finished part of his schooling and never went to college, is far more educated in the ways of Igbo life. He understands how things should be done, how Obi should behave, and where it is acceptable to push the boundaries of Igbo values. He is educated in a different way and has cultural smarts that Obi lacks.
Though Isaac Okonkwo never went to college, he was educated and trained in the ways of the Christian church and became a catechist. He is complicit with trying to re-orient Igbo culture away from traditional values and towards the values of a new religion. As a character, it suggests that Isaac is firmly attached to the new identity he has assumed as a Christian, and he is willing to reject many parts of his old identity in order to fit into the new religion.
Obi's family life is characterized by a dual value system. On the one hand, his father holds firmly to western literacy and religious ideals as his guiding light; he shields his children from aspects of Igbo culture that he sees as destructive and superstitious. Obi's mother, alternatively, is outwardly submissive to her husband's religion and value-system, but she nevertheless clings to her culture and traditions. In certain subversive moments, she tries to teach her children to respect Igbo culture, such as when she teaches Obi Igbo folk tales so he can relate them in school. This dual value system creates conflict and tension within Obi as he pursues goals that were conceived within and perpetuated by western educational, religious, and business values.